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Provost's Imagine Fund for Arts and Humanities

The Making of Shakespeare the Poet: The Publication and Reception of Shakespeare's Poetry, 1640-1790

How did Shakespeare, regarded in late seventeenth-century England as a popular but flawed playwright, become a century later SHAKESPEARE the National Poet? Over the past few decades, scholars have approached this question by focusing on the roles Shakespeare's dramatic adapters and editors played in simultaneously "creating" Shakespeare and perpetuating Bardolatry. How the publication and reception of Shakespeare's poems functioned in this process has been, however, almost entirely ignored. While the textual histories of Shakespeare's plays have been thoroughly scrutinized and debated, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editions of the poems have received only cursory examination. This oversight is particularly surprising given the high regard for Shakespeare's poetry among academics and lay readers, and the insights the poems offer into Shakespeare's biography and drama.

The poems were not officially integrated into editions of Shakespeare's works until "Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays" (1774), and they did not receive the critical apparatus afforded to the plays until Edmond Malone's "The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare" (1790). Given this apparent disregard for the poems, modern scholars seem to have adopted the position that nothing worth noting happened to Shakespeare's poems between their original publication and when they were formally admitted into his canon at the end of the eighteenth century. My book-length study challenges this assumption by investigating more closely the numerous attempts, from John Benson's "Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare. Gent." (1640) to Malone's "Plays and Poems" (1790), to package Shakespeare's poetry and to fashion Shakespeare as a poet.

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